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Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Sol (Ch 1)

There was a vampire in the basement. Sylvia wasn’t afraid of it, but she was careful not to go down there. She wasn’t stupid. It was faster than her, and stronger, and usually hungry. Father didn’t feed it often- just often enough to keep it alive. If “alive” was the right word. Sylvia didn’t have to be afraid to know that it was a bad idea to get near it, even when it was all chained up like it was. Maybe especially when it was chained up like it was.

She didn’t know how Father had gotten the vampire chained up like that. He evaded the question when she asked. But the vampire was afraid of Dad. Maybe the vampire had always been afraid of Dad, and it had come quietly. Sylvia was proud to have a father so powerful that monsters were afraid of him.

Even if Sylvia had had any friends in her fourth-grade class, she wouldn’t have told them about the vampire. It was a secret. Father had told her not to tell. So she only talked about the vampire with Mother, Father, and her brother Ash.

Ash was afraid of the vampire. She could tell. He got really uncomfortable whenever Sylvia brought it up, and he didn’t even go near the door to the basement, which was silly. If the vampire was chained, then the door was safe. If the vampire wasn’t chained, then nowhere was safe. So it was better not to be worried at all.

Father brought lots of people to see the vampire. Often they brought their children, who stayed upstairs in the living room while Sylvia regaled them with tales of the vampire.

“It’s usually very beautiful,” she said, sitting down on the large easy chair as the two girls that were there that day settled into the soft couch across from her. “Especially when it’s hungry. That’s when you have to be the most careful, because it wants you to come close so it can eat you.”

“It?” Lucia asked, frown small but definite. “It’s an it? Aren’t vampires people?”

“She, then,” Sylvia said, brushing Lucia’s question away with a wave of her hand. “Dad feeds her pig blood, but she really wants human blood. If she ever escapes, she’ll kill Dad first, and then move on to Ash and me and Mom. The vampire hates us,” she added darkly. “But then, it hates all humans.”

“Ooh,” Nellie said, shivering theatrically in a motion that made her long brown braid sway. “That’s so scary!”

Sylvia’s lips curled into a smile. Finally, an appreciative audience.

“I’m not afraid of it,” Sylvia said. She shook her head, and then had to tuck a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “Besides, it’s weak. There are stronger vampires. Dad says that there are sometimes special vampires, ones that are much stronger and deadlier than the rest. He’s going to find one someday, and kill it. I’m going to follow in his footsteps.”

“You’re so brave!” Nellie said.

Lucia rolled her eyes and picked up the remote from the side table. “I’m bored,” she said. “Let’s see what’s on TV.”

Sylvia didn’t have cable. Mother didn’t want her or Ash watching violent shows.

(“Bad enough we live in a world full of vampires and demons,” she’d said, when Ash had argued. “Real life is bad enough. We don’t need fiction to make it even worse.”)

Lucia didn’t find anything interesting on TV. While she was flipping through the few basic channels that Sylvia’s family did have, the adults came upstairs and began to chat over coffee.

“Let’s go see the vampire,” Lucia said, low enough that the adults in the other room couldn’t hear her.

That was a terrible idea. The vampire was dangerous. Sylvia couldn’t object without looking like a wuss like Ash, though, so she rolled her eyes and said, “If you really want to.”

Nellie wrapped her arms around herself. “Oh, I don’t know if that’s such a good idea. It sounds like she’s really scary!”

“I’m not afraid,” Sylvia repeated. “Let’s go down.”

They sneaked past the adults and went into the kitchen.

“Can we have a snack?” Sylvia called out, to prevent anyone from becoming suspicious.

“Sure, honey,” her mother said.

They opened the door to the basement silently, and walked down the stairs without so much as a giggle. This was something they were doing to impress each other, but it wasn’t exactly fun.

The vampire was beautiful right now, with flawless skin and sparkling eyes that seemed to draw Sylvia in. She knew that its hair was matted, its clothes torn, but none of that mattered, next to the way its eyes mesmerized anyone who looked at it.

It was too beautiful, and the way it stood, too still, made it seem almost like a doll. Sylvia had trouble looking away. She didn’t trust it.

“Hello,” it said softly, and it sounded human. It shifted ever-so-slightly, which made it seem more alive.

Sylvia wasn't fooled. She said nothing in return. She merely stared at the vampire with a grim expression. The vampire was afraid of Father. It wasn’t afraid of her. Best not to fall prey to its plans, whatever those plans were. Sylvia did not trust the vampire at all.

“She doesn’t look scary,” Lucia said.

The vampire smiled mildly. Sylvia continued staring at it distrustfully. There was a bit of blood at the corner of its mouth, which it licked away when it saw Sylvia staring. It must have just been fed.

“I’m not scary at all,” the vampire said. “Why don’t you come a little closer, children?”

It smiled again, then, an almost kind smile. None of them moved closer.

“Is it true that vampires don’t have souls?” Lucia asked. “What does that feel like?”

The vampire’s smile faded a little as it realized the chances of making a meal of them were slim.

“It doesn’t feel like anything,” it said. “What does your soul feel like?”

Lucia shrugged, a subtle motion.

They all stared at the vampire for a while longer. Finally, Sylvia said, “I’m bored. Let’s go get some ice cream.”

Nellie latched onto Sylvia’s arm as they went up the stairs, fear forgotten. She spared one last worried look at the vampire as they went.

“Is she lonely down there, do you think?” Nellie asked.

Sylvia scoffed. “She’s not capable of loneliness,” she said. “She’s a monster, not a person.”

When they got to the top of the stairs, Mother was waiting.

“Sylvia,” she said. “You should know better than to go downstairs without asking permission. You could have been hurt. You’re grounded for the next week.”

Sylvia made a pouting face. “But mom, we were really careful.”

“None of that,” Mother said. “Sylvia, go to your room. Your grounding starts now.”

Sylvia sighed, rolled her eyes, and went up to her room, as her mother had ordered.

Sylvia didn’t pay much attention to the vampire after that. There was no one around to impress with her bravery, so the vampire became dull. Lucia and Nellie wouldn’t be back at her house for ages, and it wasn’t not like the vampire was good company, so mostly Sylvia ignored its presence.

It wasn’t hard. Sylvia had schoolwork to do, and her mom had insisted that she take karate lessons each weekend in addition to her hunting classes at home. And while it was boring (if you hit anyone for real, you got yelled at, so what was the point?) it still took time. So did homework, which never ended, dull worksheet after dull worksheet. Sylvia could have finished them at school, but by the time she got to lunch she was exhausted from pretending to be interested all day.

Home was better than school. Dad was at home, and he taught her real fighting, told her the real dangers Sylvia would be up against.

Weeks passed, and if Dad hadn’t still been going down to the basement so often, Sylvia might have let herself forget about the vampire down there.

The vampire hunters in the area met up every couple of months to check in on each other and make sure no one had died. They met at a different person’s house each time, trying to keep the gatherings from becoming conspicuous. This time it was at Lucia’s house, more than two hours away.

Sylvia was going to check if she’d left the book she wanted on the dining room table when she heard arguing. She stayed in the living room, just out of sight, and listened in.

“...perfectly safe,” Dad said. “We’ll be with other hunters- I can’t think of a safer place.”

“You should have killed that thing a long time ago,” Mom said, and her voice was colder than Sylvia had ever heard it before. “I’m not going to have any more part in this harebrained idea of yours. Kill it today, or I'll do it for you.”

Usually Mom and Dad refused to fight where she could hear them. Sylvia was always interested in what they had to say when there were no kids around.

“I’ve learned things you wouldn’t-” Dad started, but there was a sound of footsteps on the stairs coming down from the second floor. Ash was coming.

The conversation was cut short, and Sylvia walked into the dining room, where she had been planning to go all along.

“Have you seen my book?” she asked.

The tension in the room eased as Mom looked around. “It’s not here, honey. Did you check your bag?”

Sylvia shook her head and went to check, passing Ash as she headed back upstairs. She murmured to him, “Mom wants the vampire dead.”

“Good,” he muttered, giving her a half-hearted smile. It made him look more constipated than brave.

Ash was still afraid. Apparently Mom was, too. Sylvia wasn’t afraid, but she did think the vampire might be an unnecessary threat that should be taken care of. That was different than fear.

Her book was in her bag the whole time. She couldn’t focus on reading, though. She kept thinking about monsters that weren’t people, and how only sunshine, the embodiment of goodness and truth, could really kill them for good.

The gathering that evening turned out to be boring. Lucia’s parents were strict, and made the girls play outside the entire time. Ash got to stay and listen, even though he was just two and a half years older. Sylvia tried to listen in at the window, but couldn’t hear anything. There wasn’t even so much as a soccer ball to kick around. Just a perfectly mowed lawn and a short, tasteful hedge that served as a fence.

“We could go to the park down the street,” Lucia said, not sounding particularly enthusiastic about the idea. “We could go on the swings. It might be better than just sitting here.”

Nellie perked up a little at that. “I like the swings,” she said. “Are there any trees to climb?”

“There are trees. You’ll probably get in trouble with your parents if you climb them, though.”

Nellie shrugged. “Let’s go.”

It had rained the night before, so it was muddy at the park, and the swings were still wet. Nellie didn’t seem to mind. She went on the swings anyway, and then climbed into a tree, high up enough that Sylvia worried she would fall. But she didn’t- she climbed down again as gracefully as she’d climbed up, but with a couple of leaves in her hair.

Lucia and Sylvia watched listlessly from the swings as she climbed the next tree, even higher, and climbed down it safely. They listened to cicadas screeching in the treetops. Sylvia halfheartedly pushed herself into motion, but couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to actually get very high.

“I’m bored,” Lucia said. “Let’s go back and see if they’re done yet.”

When Nellie came back down, they returned to the house. They arrived just in time for Sylvia to see her family’s car drive away, taking the turn too fast and leaving skid marks on the road.

A moment later, Mom and Ash came out the door.

“Sylvia,” Mom said. “We’re staying here tonight.”

Sylvia did not understand.

“Why?” she asked.

Ash said, “Dad’s mad,” but Mom shushed him before he said anything else.

Sylvia didn’t want to stay at Lucia’s house. She wanted to go home. But when she complained, Mom walked out of the room without another word.

“This will be fun,” Lucia’s mother said, but her voice did not match her cheerful words. “You can all have a slumber party in Lucia’s room.”

Sylvia frowned, but realized that the adults were not going to tell her any more. She looked at Ash, who still looked unreasonably upset. Dad got angry all the time- why was this time different? Why were they staying here, instead of going home?

“It’s too early for a sleepover,” Lucia pointed out. “It’s still light out.”

“We’ll bake cookies,” her mother said.

“I want to go back to the park,” Nellie said. “There were some good climbing trees there.”

Lucia’s mom’s eyes flicked down to Nellie’s muddy shoes and clothes, and she had to visibly make an effort not to say something about the dirt beyond, “I think Lucia has some clean clothes you can wear tonight, dear.” She bit her lip, and looked uncertain. Sylvia had never seen an adult look so uncertain before. “The park is probably not a good idea,” she finished, finally. “Let’s stay inside for now.” As an afterthought, she added, “where it’s clean.”

Sylvia knew there was something more she wasn’t saying, but she didn’t know what. For now, she just nodded, and followed Lucia and Nellie upstairs to Lucia’s room to look for a change of clothes that would fit Nellie’s slender frame.

It wasn’t long before a storm rolled in. Sylvia usually liked rain, but even the smell of a thunderstorm couldn’t soothe her irritation today. People were hiding things from her. She wished dad were here- he would explain things to her. But that was the whole problem- whatever had everyone on edge, it had to do with dad.

Ash came up to let them know it was dinner time a bit later.

“Do you know what’s going on?” Lucia asked, looking around to make sure no adults were around to shush them before they got answers.

“I went to the bathroom right before it all started,” Ash admitted. “I only heard the end of it. Dad wanted to do something dangerous, and everyone told him not to. But you know how Dad is- he doesn’t change his mind.”

Sylvia nodded. “If that’s all,” she said, “then he’ll be fine. Dad is strong. Even if what he was going to do is dangerous, he can do it.”

Ash shook his head. “It’s not that simple,” he said. “Dad isn’t perfect.”

“Kids,” Nellie’s dad shouted. “Are you going to eat, or not?”

That was the end of the conversation, at least for the time being.

Dinner was silent. After, Lucia’s mom led the girls in making cookies, but it was obvious that none of them really wanted to bake, including Lucia’s mom. The atmosphere was tense, and Sylvia had no idea how to fix it.

She needed Dad back.

The adults let them play a little more before bed. Ash and Lucia read books in the corner while Sylvia and Nellie got into a pillow fight. But the first time Nellie shrieked in delight, three adults rushed in, all armed with crossbows.

“Mom?” Sylvia asked. “What’s going on?”

Mom’s lips got very thin. “Play quietly tonight,” she said, and walked out again. Nellie’s mom and dad looked conflicted, but they followed her out with no explanation.

Sylvia didn’t understand what was going on. What was Mom afraid of? What did she think was coming?

She had too few pieces of the puzzle. Dad was angry after arguing with Mom about the vampire in the basement. Ash said Dad had gone to do “Something dangerous,” but none of the kids knew what.

Maybe Mom had convinced him to kill the vampire. Sylvia could see how that might be dangerous, though for a hunter like Dad it wouldn’t be all that dangerous, especially with the vampire chained up like it was.

If the vampire did get loose, it would want to kill them all. Vampires could not enter a home uninvited- at least, not if the house was warded properly- but it was already in Sylvia’s house. And maybe the adults thought that one of the kids would be stupid enough to let a vampire into this house, too.

Sylvia spent several moments checking the wards around Lucia’s window, just in case something was wrong with them. But the intricate lines carved into the wood of the frame were unbroken, each line carved deeply and carefully, painted over in pale grays and blues. Sylvia didn’t know how to check more than that- the wards at home were shaped differently, carved in oak and inlaid with juniper.

Catching sight of movement in the darkness outside, she looked out the window, past her reflection. For a moment she couldn’t see much, but then she realized who was standing outside on the sidewalk beneath Lucia’s window.

“Dad!” she said, and wrenched the window open. “Dad, dad! You’re back!”

He looked up at her, and there was something weird about the way he looked up but she couldn’t figure out what. She leaned out to see him better.

“Daaaad,” she called.

He looked sick, but he smiled up at her wanly. “Sylvia,” he said.

He took a step backwards, and Sylvia didn’t understand why until the next moment, when he leaped all the way at the window in one bound.

She flinched away again, but she wasn’t quite fast enough. His hand caught her loose sleeve and pulled until he could grab her arm.

She heard Lucia and Nellie scream, but she was too busy gritting her teeth, trying to keep from being pulled out the window. Her hand braced against the window frame, and the wards lit up like a firework, sending sparks along her arm. That part didn’t hurt, but it startled her enough that she nearly let go.

The sparks hurt Dad (No. Not Dad. Not anymore) but they didn’t hurt him enough to make him let go of her. They just made his face twist into something angry, something Sylvia had never before seen directed at her.

The adults ran into the room again, and Sylvia didn’t see who buried a crossbow bolt in Dad’s shoulder, but it was finally enough that he let go of her arm.

She pulled herself fully into the house, and took a step back, and back again.

The thing that had been Dad was clinging to the windowsill still, supporting himself with his fingertips in a way that wouldn’t have been possible for a human. The wards still sparked and sizzled, but he didn’t seem as bothered by them as a vampire was supposed to be. He pulled himself in with what looked like tremendous effort.

“Come with me, Juniper,” he said. “We could be so powerful, together.”

He made it past the window, and the sparking from the wards stopped. The room seemed suddenly dark. Sylvia blinked away after-images.

Mom looked at him, and aimed her crossbow unsteadily at his heart.

Sylvia wanted to run, but the adults were in the door. She took another step back, instead, nearly tripping over Nellie, and found herself backed against Lucia’s closet door. She reached and found the knob, and opened it, all without taking her eyes off of Mom and Dad.

Then she shut herself inside.

She heard the fight that happened after that, the thwack noises of crossbow bolts being embedded in the walls. She sat on the floor, wrapped her arms around her knees. She tried not to cry. She failed.

The fight noises faded, and Sylvia could only assume that the adults had moved elsewhere in the house, or maybe outside.

Her arm hurt where Dad had tried to yank her out the window.

She wanted to pull herself together but had no idea how.

A few moments later, the door opened. Sylvia shrank back deeper into the closet, then saw that it was only Ash.

“Go away,” she said, hiding her face behind her knees.

Ash sat down near her.

“Are you hurt?” he asked. She shook her head, but he said, “Your arm…”

She peeked out, looked at her arm. It was bruised all the way around.

“He grabbed me,” she said, and her voice came out in a squeak that she hated.

Ash said, “He’s gone now.”

“I know,” Sylvia said. She took a deep steadying breath, but it didn’t do anything to calm her down. Her tears started anew.

Ash wasn’t crying. It wasn’t fair. Sylvia was the tough one. Why couldn’t she stop weeping?

“Are you okay?” she asked, through the tears. “He didn’t find you?”

“I was downstairs,” he said, obviously surprised she cared. “I didn’t even see him- mom told me not to follow her.”

Good. She didn’t like Ash, but he was her brother to torment, no one else’s.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Ash asked.

“I’m just-” Sylvia said, but didn’t know how to finish. She couldn’t say “scared,” because she was a hunter from a proud line, and they weren’t supposed to be scared. “Upset” wasn’t right either.

He didn’t say anything else for a while. Nellie and Lucia came back into the room before long, and when Nellie saw Sylvia crying, she burst into tears, too. She pushed past Ash into the closet and sat beside Sylvia, holding onto Sylvia’s arm.

“It was so scary,” Nellie said. “You were smart to hide- Lucia and I ran away when we saw you do that-”

Sylvia wiped her tears hastily on her sleeve. “He was strong,” she admitted. “I couldn’t- there was nothing I could do without a weapon.”

She and Nellie sat there for a long moment, and then Sylvia extricated herself and went to wash her face in the bathroom. She had embarrassed herself enough for one night.

A few more moments, and Nellie’s parents came back.

“The wards here are fried,” Nellie’s dad said. He shook his head. “Not that they seemed to do much, anyway. The others are still out looking for him. We’re taking you children to a safehouse for the rest of the night, one Conway wouldn’t have known about.. Sylvia, are you alright?”

Sylvia nodded. “Just a bit bruised,” she said.

He insisted on looking at the bruise while Nellie’s mom led the kids in grabbing bags for the night. Both of them kept a wary eye on the window the whole time.

They were parked in the driveway, and Sylvia felt the darkness pressing in around her as they walked the short distance to the car.

She didn’t cry again, not that night. The safehouse was several hours away. Nellie’s mom drove them there. There weren’t enough seats in the car for both of Nellie’s parents, so Nellie’s dad stayed behind to help look for Dad.

Sylvia was the smallest of the children, and she ended up squashed in the middle of the backseat between Nellie and Ash. At some point, she fell asleep and woke up later to find she and Nellie had fallen asleep leaning against each other. She considered moving, but the alternative was leaning on Ash, and anyway, Nellie was warm.

They stayed in the safe house for three days with no news. Nellie’s mom tried to keep a cheerful face on for all of them, but Sylvia could tell it was fake.

Sylvia had nightmares, but she couldn’t remember specifics of them when she woke up, just the feeling of being small and unprotected, and a deep sense of fear.

They didn’t talk about it. Instead, Nellie taught her games. First simple ones, like pat-a-cake, then more complicated ones. A day in, they ran out of rhyming games and had to make up their own, one-upping each other in complexity each time.

For moments at a time, Sylvia forgot the sense of dread that everyone was feeling.

The fourth day, Nellie’s mom got a phone call on the safe line. She shooed the children out of the room, and when she came out, her face looked frozen, like she’d forgotten how to use some of the muscles that moved her lips and eyes.

“They’ve given up the hunt,” she said. “They’ll be meeting us here tonight.” She paused, and said, “Lucia, honey… I need to talk to you.”

They walked into the other room for a few minutes. Nellie and Sylvia resumed their clapping game. Lucia came out only a minute later, closing the door gently behind her.

“What’s going on?” Sylvia asked, not looking over, so engrossed in clapping.

“My mother is dead,” Lucia said.

Nellie’s hands stopped short of the next clap.

“Oh, no!” she said. She stood, and Sylvia wasn’t far behind her.

Lucia’s face was streaked with tears. Nellie wrapped her in a hug, but Sylvia didn’t know what to do. She stood nearby, put one hand hesitantly on Lucia’s arm.

When the other adults came home, the atmosphere was somber. Everyone cried- everyone but Sylvia. Sylvia had cried enough.

After a while, Mom took Sylvia and Ash into the other room.

“Your father…” she said, and then stopped.

“He’s a vampire,” Sylvia said. “I’m not dumb, mom. I saw him. He’s… not Dad anymore.”

“That’s right,” Mom said. “But it’s not all. He’d been… toying with this idea for some time. The idea of purposefully letting himself be turned. He had some foolish ideas- spells and herbs he thought would let him retain his humanity but keep the strength that being a vampire would entail. It didn’t work, obviously.”

Ash looked shocked, but it made sense to Sylvia. Something to make humans stronger- something that would give them an edge- of course Dad would want that.

Mom said, “He wanted to turn all of us, once he had it figured out. And he said certain things, as we chased him, that implied he may still want to do that. To turn us, to keep us near, to be… a sick twisted parody of a family.”

She said, “We can’t go home again. The others will help us collect our things. We’re moving somewhere else- I don’t know where, yet. For now, we’ll stay with other hunters. We’ll have to install wards wherever we move, and that takes time.”

Sylvia said, “What about my karate lessons? I have them tomorrow, Mom. What about school?”

Mom kissed the top of her head. “We’ll find a new school, and new karate lessons. It will be okay. You’ll make new friends.”

Sylvia didn’t have any friends at school anyway. She just had Lucia and Nellie, and she suspected, deep down, that they only played with her because their parents wanted them to, or because there was no one else around during the hunting meetings to play with.

She’d never needed friends before. She’d had Dad.

They stayed at Nellie’s house after that, while Mom looked for a new house.

They didn’t go to Lucia’s mom’s funeral. It was too dangerous. Dad might expect them, and he might set a trap of some kind. Instead they stayed at Nellie’s house. Nellie’s family didn’t go, either. Lucia’s dad had enough non-hunter friends that the funeral wouldn’t be empty.

The previous week had been spent warding and re-warding the house and backyard, and the kids were allowed to play outside as long as an adult was within earshot. Nellie climbed the tree in her backyard, and Sylvia followed, reluctantly. It was a plum tree, overripe plums littered the ground around it.

Sylvia wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do, once she was up in the tree. Nellie just sat on a branch and stared into the distance. Sylvia joined her.

“Lucia is sad,” Nellie said.

“Yeah,” Sylvia agreed.

“Are you sad?” Nellie asked, looking over at Sylvia.

Sylvia shrugged, and leaned against the tree trunk. She thought, it wasn’t like Nellie even cared. She was just being nice.

Maybe Nellie wouldn’t care, then, if Sylvia wasn’t strong.

“I’m mad,” Sylvia admitted. “And- and- and Mom said my dad want to turn me into a vampire.” Her voice shook a little as she spoke, and she hated it. She hated this.

“I won’t let that happen,” Nellie said, and Sylvia didn’t understand how silly Nellie could sound so brave when Sylvia couldn’t do it. “We’ll both grow up to be amazing vampire hunters and he won't get you because we’ll find him and kill him first.”

“No!” Sylvia blurted, and then looked away, embarrassed. If there was anything worse than being afraid, it was being sentimental.

Nellie looked at her kindly, and that somehow hurt worse than if she’d scolded Sylvia for being too attached.

(It was what Dad would have done, but Dad was gone)

“He’s not your dad anymore,” Nellie said. “He’s a monster wearing your dad’s face.”

“I know,” Sylvia said, but she wasn’t so sure. (What kind of monster did a person have to be, to make even vampires afraid of them?) To distract herself, she reached up into the branches of the tree they were sitting in and pulled down an overripe plum. She bit into it, sticky-sweet juice running down her chin. Nellie followed suit, and there was quiet for a moment as they enjoyed the fruits.

Then, when they had finished and thrown the cores down to the ground below, Nellie took Sylvia’s hand. The two of them were small and sticky with plum juice, but the look on Nellie’s face was so serious that Sylvia never forgot what she said next.

“You don’t have to do it,” she said . “I can do it for you. But promise me you won’t stand in my way?”

Sylvia didn’t have words to reply. She didn’t know how to accept offers of protection, how to accept gentleness- only how to scorn it. She was supposed to be stronger than this.

She nodded, looking down at her feet.

She didn’t want to be a vampire. She didn’t want Dad to get her.

She was afraid.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Family Demons (Ch 1)

Alex and Nick weren’t cheaters. They just... specialized.

It made sense to specialize. No one could be good at everything, right? And if the world insisted on treating them like one person, then they might as well take full advantage.

That was why Alex did math while Nick did creative writing and history, why Alex did all their magical theory homework and most of the application too, but Nick helped provide a little extra power if the spell needed more oomph.

For anyone else, it might have been cheating. Sometimes Alex still wondered. But it wouldn’t have been fair to do the work twice over, either- they only had 24 hours between them, after all, and homework took so much time.

Part of Alex- the angry part- figured it served the world right, if he and Nick lied and cheated to get by. It wasn’t like the world even believed Alex existed. When he was angry, it seemed like nothing he did could possibly be as unfair as the situation he’d been born into, like he could never damage the world as much as it had tried to damage him. In those moments- which he always regretted later- he could do or say anything, no matter how hurtful, no matter how awful.

Nick usually stopped him. Alex was glad. It was another kind of specialization. Alex was the angry one. Nick was the calm, happy one. The one with people skills and kind words for everyone. Alex had only ever had a chance to be kind to Nick, and, in the past couple years, to the students who came in for peer tutoring in math.

Despite all of his anger issues, Alex was a good tutor. He was good at breaking ideas down into manageable chunks and figuring out which chunks the student wasn’t getting. He’d managed to get Nick halfway through pre-calc before they’d decided to split their subjects up like they currently did, and if he could teach Nick math, he could teach anyone math.

Alex had been able to pick Friday afternoons for tutoring because he’d gotten first dibs on tutoring slots as a senior. Friday was the calmest day, and Alex just couldn’t deal with too many people at once. Last year he’d had Tuesdays, and that had been hell. He and the other Tuesday tutor had always been swamped with students, and it was hard to teach anyone anything when they were all vying for attention and no one would shut up.

Quieter times were easier.

Today only one person needed help- a senior in Alex’s calculus class with fire truck red hair and a grin too big for his face. His name was Mateo, and he’d been coming to Alex’s tutoring hours for the past couple of weeks. He was picking up material fast, but it was obvious he was a little behind. Alex hadn’t seen him before this year, so he had to be a transfer student or something. Maybe his old school hadn’t offered the same kind of math classes. Alex couldn’t think of another reason why such a bright guy would be so behind.

Mateo breezed through another practice problem without much difficulty, now that he had the basics down.

“How’d I do?” he asked, pushing the paper towards Alex.

Alex checked it over. “Yeah,” he said. “Looks good.”

Next to him, Mateo stretched, and his too-tight t-shirt rode up a little. Alex did not stare at Mateo’s abs. Really he didn’t. (A peek was not the same as staring.)

“Want to move on to something harder?” Alex asked.

Mateo checked the time on his phone. “Better not. But maybe I’ll catch you again next week.”

“Sure,” Alex said. “I’ll be... here. Have a nice weekend.”

Mateo grinned at him. “Same to you.”

Once Mateo was out of sight, Alex let his head hit the table in front of him.

I am such a dork, he told Nick.

Nick just gently took control of their body, chuckled to himself, and began to gather their things. It was time to go home.

It was October now, and the days were starting to get shorter, and chilly. Nick put on a hoodie before leaving school, which helped keep the chill away, but didn’t do anything about the dark. Alex had always hated the dark, ever since he was a kid, and that was why Nick was the one who walked home after school. It was stupid. Alex hated feeling afraid, especially when Nick had no problem with the dark.

Even when Nick was in control, darkness still made Alex really uncomfortable. From time to time he tried to convince himself that it wasn’t the darkness that scared him, but the things that might be hiding in it. This didn’t help. Thinking about what might be out there just made him more afraid.

Now, he just tried to think that it was safe. Nothing was waiting for him out there. There were things that went bump in the night, but they were rare, and most of them were just ghosts, totally harmless to anyone unless they were angry about how they’d died or something. The occasional other things, the ones that could hurt you- well, usually they killed you fast enough that you didn’t have time to worry. It was only demons that tortured humans, and demons were rare enough that Alex’s magical theory teacher refused to take sides on whether they existed or not.

Alex figured they were probably real. They were too horrible to be made up. But Alex was a pessimist. He left the optimism to Nick.

In any case, Alex and Nick made it safely home without encountering anything dangerous, or even strange. Nick smiled at his mom and started to untie his shoes.

“Hey,” he said, balancing on one foot as he pulled his right shoe off.

“Hello, Nick. Did you have a good day at school?”

“Yeah,” Nick said, without going into too much detail. “The usual. You know.”

His mom smiled at him and went back to stirring something delicious-smelling on the stove. “You had a math test, right? How did that go?”

“Fine,” Nick said, finally getting his other shoe off. “You know I’ve been doing well in math.”

Alex was doing well in math, anyway. But that was how they did things. Nick took the credit (and the blame) for everything both he and Alex did. Alex liked to think he did more to deserve praise than blame, but he was never really sure. He tried, anyway. Sometimes it was hard, being basically invisible. But he had Nick to keep him on-track, and that had to be enough.

“I’m proud of you,” his mom told him. “I used to worry- you struggled in some classes, and I was worried about college. But you’ve really pulled it together.”

Nick grinned, totally fake and cheesy. “I try,” he said uncomfortably.

He walked to the living room and flipped on the TV. Alex and Nick had a brief internal scuffle about who got to hold the remote, which Nick won, and then Nick began to flip channels. There was nothing really exciting on. Alex and Nick hardly had time to watch TV anyway, between homework, school, chores, and Nick’s social life. Alex wasn’t sure what shows were even on. Eventually Nick settled on some old detective show, which was dumb because they’d missed the beginning and had no clue what was going on.

Just when Alex was starting to figure out the what the mystery even was- something about a missing necklace and a murder, and they were blaming a ghoul like this was Scooby Doo or something- the garage door opened, and, a moment later, the back door opened and closed.

“Hi, Dad,” Nick said.

“Hi, Squirt,” his dad said. Nick made a face. He hated that nickname, mostly because Asher had picked up on it a few months ago and insisted on calling him that all the time. It wasn’t like Nick and Alex were even that short- they were maybe half an inch below average, and okay, maybe a little on the skinny side. It was more that they had a youthful face and kept being mistaken for a freshman that bothered Nick, Alex thought. Alex didn’t really care one way or the other about their appearance, except that it drove him nuts when Nick rolled out of bed and went to school with their brown hair sticking up at weird angles- which Nick would do every day if Alex didn’t yell at him.

Nick’s dad sat on the couch beside Nick with a sigh of relief.

“Hard day at work?” Nick asked.

“They’re all hard lately,” he said. He grabbed the remote from Nick, who let him, and flipped to the news. They were still covering the earthquake from last week. There wasn’t a lot of other news this far from the city. The town was too quiet to be interesting.

The earthquake was the reason that Nick’s dad was so busy- they didn’t get a lot of earthquakes in the Midwest, so none of the wards- which protected everything from public parks to banks- had been ready for it. Nick’s dad made and installed wards, and while it was never exactly slow business, it had really picked up in the last week. Nick’s dad had been leaving early and coming home late. Today was pretty early- it was only six.

“Dinner’s ready!” Nick’s mom said.

Alex wanted to be the one to eat dinner, but he didn’t want to make conversation with Nick’s parents. It was always strange, to be on the receiving end of their affection and concern. They didn’t really care about him. He wasn’t their son. He was just a hanger-on. For all that Nick insisted they were like brothers, Alex knew that no one but Nick would ever want him around. It was just part of life. He wasn’t sad about it anymore- he’d had years to adjust- but anyone who knew the situation would think Nick was just insane, or maybe possessed. Who knew, they might be right. Alex had looked into multiple personality disorder, and it didn’t seem to fit very well, but a failed case of possession was always an option. Alex hadn’t been able to find any information about cases of possession in infants though, and Alex had been in Nick’s head as long as he could remember. They’d learned to talk together, been potty trained together, been taught their ABCs and how to read together. Those memories were fuzzy- some of them really fuzzy- but they were there. If Alex had ever been a malevolent spirit, he couldn’t remember that far back.

Nick talked to his parents a little over dinner, about school, and how tutoring was going, and his date with Tiffany the other day. The news played in the background, and Alex paid more attention to that. Apparently there was an infestation of zombies in a little town nearby, but firefighters and the police were taking care of them. Something to do with the wards on the graveyards being disturbed- there’d been a lot of cases like that lately. It was bad enough that the president had declared a state of emergency, had come to a couple of the bigger cities to give speeches- which meant Alex had gotten to see her, from a distance. Their city was one of the largest around (more by default than because it was actually large or anything.)

Finally, dinner was over. Nick helped load the dishwasher and then Alex went up to his room to do homework.

“You know,” Nick murmured to him, as Alex worked through a particularly complicated integral, “it’s Friday night. Most people are out having fun.”

“Most people aren’t in 4 AP classes,” Alex pointed out, keeping his voice low. The last thing he wanted was for Nick’s mom to come in and ask if Nick was talking to himself again. You’d think after nearly 18 years she’d be used to Nick muttering to himself as he did work, but apparently not. “Don’t you have homework for your creative writing class? Don’t you want to get it out of the way before your date with Tiffany tomorrow?”

“Ehhhh,” Nick said. “I have all weekend. Besides, I don’t feel inspired right now.”

Alex scoffed.

Nick turned his head to the mirror on the door and stuck his tongue out at his reflection, because obviously only one of them had ever really grown up at all ever.

“Come on,” Nick said. “Play a video game with me or something.”

Alex looked at his math homework. There was a lot of it, and it was a little tricky- but as Nick said, they did have all weekend.

“Fine,” he said. “Just for a little while.”

Playing video games together was hard when you only had one set of hands. It was kind of special when they found one they could play together. The important thing about this one, the real reason they were playing it, was that one player could control the mouse while the other controlled the keyboard.

Alex was using the mouse this time, strategically healing Nick’s party and slowing down enemies. Nick was controlling the main character and her party, so he got to do a little more, but they switched off from time to time so they both got to play both parts. It helped that Alex was right-handed while Nick was left-handed. They would have figured a way around it if they had to, but it made video games easier when they didn’t have to fight for control of the dominant hand.

All in all, it was a good night. Relaxing. In that moment, Alex could see the rest of his life stretching in front of him- their life, because it was always going to be Nick’s life, too- and it wasn’t too bad. College together at the state university, only an hour and a half away, where they were going to double-major in math and creative writing. They’d already turned in the application, and there was no way they weren’t getting in with grades like theirs. Maybe Nick would get married to Tiffany eventually, or maybe another girl. Alex was fine with it either way, though Tiffany was nice. And Alex would always be there, ready to work a well-paying day job and be the bread-winner while Nick did his writing thing at night. Having kids was a weird area, but they’d figure it out someday, he was sure.

Yeah. It wasn’t a perfect life, but no one had one of those. It was good enough. Alex wasn’t sure it would be fulfilling, exactly, but he’d settle for “okay.”

He brushed his teeth and got ready for bed. Nick had already dozed off, a heavy weight in the back of Alex’s mind. It was hard to be awake when Nick was sleeping. Alex went to shut the curtains, and caught sight of something pale and human-shaped just outside the property line, just where Alex knew from long lectures as a kid that the wards ended.

He would have said “human” and been done with it, but... it wasn’t. It was pale and naked, and it wasn’t standing like a human. From this distance it was hard to make out details, but it was standing at a weird angle, as though it didn’t have real bones and wasn’t sure how humans actually moved. It was bald, and he couldn’t make out its features. And it was staring at the house.

Creepy. But not dangerous- Alex knew the wards on the house were nearly perfect. Nick’s dad had made sure of that. Even if it was one of the zombies running around like on the news, it wouldn’t get through. In fact, the wards had probably already silently notified the police that there was something undead nearby…

The thing looked up at the window where Alex was standing, though Alex wasn’t sure how it could see him when, he realized with a shudder, it had no face. Where a face should have been, it was just... skin. Its head tilted sideways, and there was a flash of something, like he was seeing through a particularly strong illusion- but it was too fast, and he couldn’t make out whatever showed through, especially at this distance.

And then it dashed away, movement fluid and alien.

Alex was officially freaked out, but he just closed the curtains and laid down in bed. He was safe behind the wards, he tried to remember. Everything was fine. Some places had rabbits that got into gardens and ate all the tomatoes. Some places had an annoying number of pigeons, or mosquitoes. Their town- the whole Midwest, really- just had a zombie problem right now. Just another dumb animal, though they were definitely a lot creepier than rabbits.

Even with that thought- even with Nick as an anchor weighing him down- it took a long time to fall asleep.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Family Demons (Prologue)


Alex and Nick have always shared a body, as long as they can remember. But even in a world where the supernatural is common, this isn’t normal. For years, they’ve pretended to be just one person to avoid being called crazy- or worse, being taken to a priest to be exorcised. They’ve always been curious about how their unique circumstances began, but when a mysterious creature begins hunting everyone involved in their birth, the stakes are suddenly much higher. Now they must uncover their family’s secrets to figure how they came to be, and why something is hunting anyone connected to them- before it starts hunting them, too.

Alex was seven when he realized that he wasn’t normal.

It was a sunny day in summer, and he and Nick had just celebrated their birthday a few days before. They shared a birthday, of course. They shared everything.

On this particular day, they had gotten hold of a hammer, some wood, and some nails. They weren’t supposed to play with Dad’s tools. They both knew that. But Alex had decided that their backyard needed a tree house, and Nick had agreed. So they’d grabbed the necessary supplies from the shed near the big mossy wardstone behind the house, and off they went. The sun beat hot outside the shade of the big tree in the backyard, and locusts shrieked in the leaves above them. At the age of seven, it was the perfect day, the kind of day they both loved.

They’d gotten as far as nailing the first board to the tree- and miraculously managed to avoid smashing their thumbs in the process- when Dad had come outside.

“What are you doing?” he said.

Nick had quickly hidden the hammer behind his back, but he didn’t fool anyone.

“You know you aren’t old enough to be building things like this,” Dad said. “Hand it over, Mister.”

Nick reluctantly handed the hammer to his dad. “It was Alex’s idea,” he said, with a pout.

Dad sighed. “Aren’t you getting a little old for imaginary friends, Nick?”

Nick and Alex just stared.

“Alex isn’t imaginary,” Nick said.

“Right,” Dad said, and shook his head. He gathered up the nails and loose boards that Nick and Alex had scattered all over the ground, and locked them in the shed with a spell Alex and Nick didn’t yet know how to undo.

Alex just stood there, staring out of Nick’s eyes and blinking away tears.

His own Dad didn’t believe he existed.

When it became obvious that Dad wasn’t going to turn around and say, “Just kidding!” Alex started to cry in earnest, in quiet, painful, little sobs.

Nick hugged his arms around himself, and said, gently: “He doesn’t mean it. He doesn’t mean it, Alex, he can’t-”

But the damage was done.

Alex let Nick be in charge of their body for the next few hours, instead of fighting him for it like he usually did. He didn’t much feel like talking. Nick made a point of not talking to Dad during dinner that night, instead pointedly talking to Mom. If Dad noticed, he didn’t say anything.

Eventually, once conversation about the day’s events had petered out, Nick said to Mom: “You believe Alex exists, right?”

Mom’s expression was guarded. She glanced at Dad, who shook his head a little.

“I believe that you believe in Alex,” she said.

Nick scowled. “That’s not the same thing,” he said.

Mom frowned. “I know that, honey.”

“So you don’t believe in him?” Nick asked.

“Nick...” she said, warningly. Which meant she wasn’t going to answer. Which meant the answer was no.

“I think that once you have more friends, you won’t need Alex anymore,” she said, brightly. “What about that boy who came over last week? Asher? He seemed nice. You should invite him to come over and play again.”

Nick gave her a disgusted look. “Alex is going to cry again,” he told her. “You’re really mean. Both of you should be ashamed of yourselves,” he added in his best impression of Mom, with a glare tacked on for good measure.

Then he abandoned his meal and went up the stairs to his room and slammed the door.

That was the day Alex realized that everyone was always going to think he was imaginary. That Nick had made him up. And the most unfair thing was that there was no way to prove them wrong. Alex didn’t have a body of his own. He just had Nick’s. It wasn’t like Nick could point at him, and say, “See?” They lived in the same head. They lived in the same body.

Alex didn’t talk to Mom or Dad for a full week after that. And to make it worse, he realized something after a few days of silence: they weren’t his parents. They were just Nick’s parents. If they were Alex’s parents, they would love him. And they didn’t. So they couldn’t be his parents.

Nick stayed angry at his parents even longer than Alex did. But eventually things went more-or-less back to normal. There was just one difference- whenever Alex did anything, he pretended he was Nick. Neither he nor Nick ever mentioned the name “Alex” to anyone for the next ten years. They pretended Alex didn’t exist.

It wasn’t that far from the truth anyway.

chapter 1

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Patreon is live!

A quick (belated) update: I have a Patreon!

Feel free to head over and look at it! I have 2 stories going already, one that is shaping up to be a short novel and one shorter work. Get access to updates as they happen for $1 a month, and more goodies for higher tiers.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Current Stories In Progress

Family Demons:

Alex and Nick have always shared a body, as long as they can remember. But even in a world where the supernatural is common, this isn’t normal. For years, they’ve pretended to be just one person to avoid being called crazy- or worse, being taken to a priest to be exorcised. They’ve always been curious about how their unique circumstances began, but when a mysterious creature begins hunting everyone involved in their birth, the stakes are suddenly much higher. Now they must uncover their family’s secrets to figure how they came to be, and why something is hunting anyone connected to them- before it starts hunting them, too.


Sylvia is part of a vampire-hunter family. She is brave. She isn't afraid of the vampire her dad has trapped in the basement.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

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